King of the Boomers: David L. Payne and the Opening of Oklahoma
As we have worked to update and modernize the Oklahoma Territorial Museum, we began an in-depth study of David Payne and the “Boomer” movement. Many of the things we think we know are at best incomplete and at worst pure fabrication. We wanted to find out who Payne and his followers were; where they came from; their political views and the origin of those views; who opposed them in their quest and how did they overcome. Was Payne a drunken con-man or a Populist leader?
David Lewis Payne was born December 30, 1836 in Indiana to William and Celia Payne. Payne homesteaded in Kansas in 1856. Payne fought for the Union in the Civil War, and scouted for the government, earning the nickname “the Cimarron Scout.” He served as a Captain with George Armstrong Custer during the Washita campaign in November 1868. The people of Doniphan County elected Payne to the Kansas legislature, he served as doorman to the United States House of Representatives, appointed Postmaster at Fort Leavenworth Kansas, and a township in Sedgewick County Kansas and Payne county Oklahoma are named for him.
While Payne served as Doorman to the House of Representatives he became aware of the Oklahoma Lands. 2,000,000 acres in the center of the Indian Territory unassigned to any tribe. Payne viewed these lands as part of the Public Domain and open for settlement. In August, 1879 Payne organized a group of settlers to colonize the Unassigned Lands of the Indian Territory. Payne and his followers, the “Boomers” made numerous intrusions during the next few years. These Boomers came from all walks of life; some looked for land to build homes and farms others to be the first in a new land and build wealth through land speculation. Poor farmers, small-town merchants, and men like William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and future Populist Party Presidential candidate Gen. James Weaver invested in Payne’s Oklahoma venture.
Though unassigned to a tribe, Cattlemen occupied the lands and used them to fatten herds to provide beef to hungry markets. Large scale investment in the highly profitable Range-Cattle industry by moneyed interests, politicians, and government officials blocked the opening of the lands. The Cattlemen and the Boomers took every opportunity to curry favor from politicians, influence public opinion, and slander each other in the press.
Payne suffered many privations in his attempts to open the land. Hard winters and rough handling by the Army took its toll on Payne’s health. A month in a damp dugout on the Deep Fork River caused him to suffer greatly from rheumatism. Two weeks traveling under arrest in the back of a wagon in the summer of 1884 may have led to his eventual death. The cramped conditions and constant bending of his knees may have caused deep vein thrombosis that led to a pulmonary embolism; his post mortem mentions a large clot in his heart.
Payne died while on a speaking tour to raise money for his efforts. On the evening of November 27, 1884, he gave a speech in Wellington, Kansas. The next morning in the dining room of the De Barnard Hotel, Payne ate his breakfast, ordered a glass of milk, began choking and died. Thousands are said to have attended his funeral in Wellington. He was reburied in Stillwater, Oklahoma on April 22, 1995.
Was Payne a populist leader or drunken con-man? Payne, saw an opportunity to better his economic situation in Oklahoma and devoted the last years of his life to opening it for settlement. He used the courts, the press, public opinion, and civil disobedience to attain his goals. He attracted thousands to his cause and became national news in the process. Payne, as with many men of his time liked to tip the bottle, and was known to pay bills with borrowed money or stock in his town company. Regardless of personal flaws, Payne, organized and led a movement that created the state of Oklahoma.